The Last Journey

Article #11 “Always Working”


05 August 2010, Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan, Thursday, 1615 hrs…The rain has stopped, at least for now.  The weather is hot and muggy, partly cloudy.  I’ve been told that tomorrow I am scheduled for a flight, but will not know until later this evening what the real status is.  One thing is for sure, I’m still at Salerno and everything is for sure a definite maybe. That is what these journeys entail sometimes.


In 1982, my youngest and final child was born.  Her name is Moriah.  She is the 4th of four.  The baby.  The quiet one, or at least it appeared that way.  She was and is, the most studious when it comes to education.  She also does things on her own terms and in her own timing.  She chooses the hardest things to do.  She is 28-years-old and is a nurse.  I am extremely pleased with her choice of profession.  It is a tough job but she is very good at it.  All day long I thought of her as I spent a few hours at the hospital here at Salerno speaking with the medical professionals that take care of everybody at anytime under any circumstances.  Today was a wonderful, informative and down right fun time to spend with those that took time out to brief me about what they do.  I want to give this my best shot, in the style I write, to be able to convey how important a job ALL of the folks at the hospital here do each and every day. 


For some background, I must inform the readers first, about a little history of how I got to know the Army side of the medical profession.  In 2004, I was stationed at Balad Air Base in Iraq.  During that time, (28-months) I worked the flight line as a civilian contractor.  Part of our job was to assit in the patient transport off and onto aircraft going to places like Germany, as well as rushed into the field hospital which at that time was a tent alongside the flight line.  I worked the night shift and saw everything.  During the daytime, I volunteered my time at the 31st Combat Support Hospital and became an observer of the Army medical side of the house.  I soon learned then, that these folks are just fantastic.  They taught me so much about the mission and were always greeting me with open arms.  In short, it was at that time that I encouraged my youngest daughter to continue to pursue her career in nursing.  It was the best thing I ever did at the time, and to this day, I and my daughter are better people for it all.  It was the Army medical folks that taught me values.  I love them all for that.


Today, after so long a time of being away from the war zone, I was “hooked up” with an interview with the folks at the hospital.  I had requested such a time, but initially was told it would be too hard to coordinate and would take too long.  However, once the folks at the hospital heard I wanted to come and visit with them, it was a done deal.  As in the past, they opened the door with arms  wide open.  This is an incredible group of people here at Salerno and I hope I can convey properly how important they are.


I was introduced to Lt. Col. Kolb who is the main man at the hospital.  He is the hospital commander.  In short, he owns the hospital for the duration of his time deployed here.  He is a reservist and deployed out of Ft. Dix, New Jersey.  This is not his first rodeo.  As is with most soldiers in the Army, no matter what field they find themselves in, many are on their second, third or more deployment.  Lt. Col. Kolb, proceeded to give me a presentation in the conference room of the hospital in the presence of several of his staff.  I was able to audio record the presentation which I found to be absolutely one of the most informative briefings I have ever been privy to.  This man detailed in excellent fashion the entire mission of his unit, what the hospital is doing and how his hospital interfaces with other facilities in serving not only the soldiers but the local Afghan population when called upon.  I highly suggest folks take a listen to the audio which lasts about 30-minutes.  If anyone wants to know just what a hospital does on such a base as Salerno, Lt. Col. Kolb lays out in simple terms.  It is too lengthy to describe it in writing but it is important enough to give the readers a chance to hear it. 


During his briefing I asked some questions about what all they’ve been addressing since taking over around June 3 of this year, a mere two months ago.  Basically, they’ve dealt with everything already, and then some.  The facility has pretty much all it needs to get things done.  I was taken to the operating room where he showed me that two operations can be going on at the very same time in the same location.  That has already occurred.   They are constantly preparing for all kinds of situations and in the middle of that they continue to mentor some Afghan medical personell as well.  It is a 24/7, 7-days a week, job, which gets done, and done well. 


I asked about the amount of experience a physician or nurse or PA, gets on one deployment compared to their practice at home.  No doubt, someone here can obtain a wealth of experience in their respective field in very short order.  It’s not uncommon to get 5-years worth of experience in one deployment.  And that goes for every aspect of the entire hospital, from docs, to nurses, to x-ray techs, to medical record keeping, the entire gambit.  I spoke with several of the younger folks who are nurses and techs after the briefing and each and everyone of them told me that what they are learning here so fast, is absolutely remarkable.  All of them are actually quite thankful to be getting so much hands on job related experience that almost all of them will remain in their career field until retirement time comes around.  I recorded their conversation with me on audio as well and encourage the readers to listen to it.


One of the rooms I visited during the tour of the hospital contained a ward where a young Afghan girl was being treated.  She was seven years old.  She had been injured and the governor of Khost province specifically requested if the hospital here at Salerno would accept her and assist.  Her mother had been killed and her sister also was severely injured.  This young girl had some severe injuries but was recovering.  She had been there 20-days.  She has a long road ahead of her. Not only is the job of the hospital to treat patients, it is also to forge relationships with the population itsself.   Lt. Col. Kolb spoke to me about how his staff, especially the nurses treating the young girl, have become quite attached to such a situation.  It is the hard part of the jobs these medical folks do.  I looked at the young girl as her uncle watched over her.  Some things are the same all over the parts of the world I’ve been to. 


I was later taken to a room where some soldiers recovering were awaiting to return to their units.  I asked them how it was here and all three of them spoke highly of the treatment and service as all three of them took turns playing on one of those Wi video games that had a bowling game going on.  Next I visited a room where a highly important piece of equiptment was kept.  It is a CT scanner and gets plenty of use.  I asked the Lt. Col what are some of his major obstacles that he has to deal with in the realm of supply.  He fast responded that he has been following up on what the unit before him had been trying to obtain since last March.  That is a back up battery for the Phillips CT scanner machine.  It is absolutely critical to have one of these back up batteries.  He mentioned to me that the red tape issue of getting one of those and dealing with the manufacturer has been quite a challenge.  It’s not like you can just go get one.  The factory rep and salesman kind of played ping pong with the battery issue but he has been informed that the back up battery for the machine is now sitting in Bagram.  No one knows how long it will take to get here, but it has taken nearly 7-months to get that far.  Kind of sounds like my journey lately.  They all smiled when I explained that I was going to mention this in my writings.  When it comes to something important, best to get some grease for that squeeky wheel. 


Towards the end of my visit I was introduced to another Lt. Col who is a doctor.  His name is Lt. Col. Cooper.  I shook his hand and then began speaking with him.  During the conversation we each traded stories about time spent in Balad.  Then we began narrowing down to which months and year.  Soon, we kept looking at each other, recognized familiar names and sure enough he remembered immediately who I was and that I had produced lots of archivial digital photographs for the 31st CSH in 2004.  It was absolutely a great experience to speak with this person who was a major part of how I learned what goes on in the Army medical field during war time.  It just was amazing to run into him. 


After this, the tour of the hospital was pretty much complete.  There was much, much more that was shown to me, but it too is just too lengthy to put down into words on this forum.  But, it was a great briefing and excellent tour.  All along I was thinking about my time in Balad in 2004-2006.  Nearly every day I had something to do with the CSH in those days.  Seeing this unit from Ft. Dix, New Jersey really made me feel good today.  The reason is, that what I’ve seen in the medical side of the house in the Army, is still very good and up to the same standard I saw in 2004.  I can say from my own observations that they are all still on the same page and still function as one.  That is a good thing and it’s been seven years since I’ve seen this up close.  I can verify,  they are still very good.  I’m not surprised, I’m pleased.

At the end of the day today, I came back to take a photo of the front entrance.  Just at that same time, many of the medical folks were standing by ready to receive a patient, a local female Afghan.  They were ready and I happened to be there to take that photo.  All of them recognized me and prior to the patient arriving we all spoke to one another about that mornings interview.  It’s the way it was back in ’04.  They knew me and they accepted me.  I took my photos from a bit of a distance, because I wanted to get the sign that said “Salerno” in the shot.  As I finished my job, I watched the med crew continue to do their jobs.  They are always working. 

In the end, it was a good day mostly because I got to spend time with people that are here always working to save lives.  I spent some time interviewing five folks at the end and it is available on audio for those that want to hear it.  It is well worth the time to listen to it.  I was shocked when my daughter Moriah told me she was going to become a nurse and have a career in the medical field.  I am glad she choose such an honorable profession. 


Jim Spiri Last Journey